The current US presidential election cycle has been an eventful ride, full of surprises, mostly on the Republican side. However, I have been following the race mostly through the data driven analysis of Fivethirtyeight ,Vox and the Upshot and insider reporting of Politico and Washington Post. This has helped me to mostly place every new development in context and avoid the mainstream, conventional punditry which hypes up every small detail and manages to label every incident as a ‘gamechanger’. Every once in a while though, it is impossible to not come across articles that only serve to reinforce how hollow the analysis of conventional pundits is.
One such article appeared in Bloomberg a few days back, with the caption ‘The Most Likely Next President Is Hillary Clinton.’
The author of this article is Mark Halperin. Every four year, Mr. Halperin along with Mr. John Heilemann brings out his books titled ‘Game Change’ which go into painful details on every behind the scene moment in the presidential election campaigns. While the books are entertaining and breezy reads (although without much of any insightful analysis), Mr. Halperin has lately been embarrassing himself as the head of Bloomberg Politics. He rated the launch of the campaign of every presidential candidate with grades on three parameters – style, substance and overall; the ratings were at best an illogical random number sequence that bore hardly any resemblance to the actual likelihood of the candidate winning. And on top of that, the overall rating accorded to each candidate was in close agreement to the rating given to the style of the candidate and had no relation, whatsoever, to how the substance of the candidate was rated.
Mr. Halperin is in essence the typical beltway journalist, basing everything on his deep sources and political instincts and is loathe looking at any sort of data while pronouncing his judgments. As a result, the supposedly analytical piece that he has penned here turns out to be anything but analytical.
Let us start from the caption of the article. It is true that Hillary Clinton is the most likely next president. But this has been true from the time Hillary declared her candidacy, and probably from even before that. And this has mostly been because of the fact that she is the overwhelming front runner in the Democratic side of the primaries while the Republican primary nomination is yet to be settled and has at least half a dozen plausible mainstream candidates apart from a number of long shots and ideological fringe elements. Thus while Hillary has, by even most pessimistic estimates, a 75% chance of winning the Democratic nomination, no candidate has in the Republican primaries has more than 40% chance of winning the nomination.
Now, it is not known which party will have an edge in the general election – a lot will for instance depend on how the approval rating of Barack Obama holds up and how the economy performs in the quarters leading to the election night. However, most political pundits agree at this point that the election is going to be a close one with the fundamentals not strongly favouring any side at the moment. Even if we are pessimistic about the chances of the Democratic Party in capturing the White House and give them only a 40% chance of winning the election, the probability of Hillary becoming the next President is 30% (i.e. 75%*40%) whereas the Republican frontrunner only has a 24% (i.e. 40%*60%) chance of winning the general election.
Thus Hillary has been for a long time been the most likely person to be the next US president. This fact has been known to anyone who has been following the US election and there is nothing newsworthy in it.
Halperin then goes on to justify the already established and obvious statement, giving a point wise detailed rationale on how he arrived at it. He goes on to argue that the events of the last week (the first Democratic debate, Biden deciding not to run and Clinton’s testimony before the House Bengazhi committee) have grown to reinforce these points. But most of these points are either already known to everyone, had no connection with the events of last week or are simply non sequiturs.
The first point that Halperin makes is that Clinton has shown how to handle Bernie Sanders on a debate stage. While most political experts have declared Clinton as the winner of the debate, it was also the most expected outcome. Clinton is widely considered to be extremely strong in debates where she can deliver prepared answers to mostly expected questions and show her strong knowledge of the specifics of policy measures. This fact was demonstrated over and again during the 2008 presidential campaign when Clinton debated with the then Senator Obama around 25 times and mostly emerged as the better candidate. Sanders, on the other hand, has not been heard by most voters, other than the progressive activists and journalists who attend his rallies, and as a result, was an unknown commodity heading into the first debate. Clinton was thus the favourite against Sanders.
The second point that Haperin makes is that Sanders does not know how to seize the big moments. This is a completely subjective statement. By most accounts and especially by the accounts of his passionate followers, Sanders had a strong debate night and also delivered an impassioned speech at the Jefferson-Jackson dinner. It is just that in the debate, Clinton performed better than Sanders. This may also be partly attributed to the fact that the whole negative news cycle on the email controversy of Clinton had lowered the expectations from the candidate so much that a steady performance from her was considered a huge victory.
Halperin’s third point is that Clinton has been able to somehow improve her image and present a more likable self in the appearances of last week. Again, this is a subjective point and likely a media spin. It is not believable that Clinton who has been in national limelight in the last three decades would be unable to present a more likable self in her earlier appearances and would suddenly show improvement in the last week. The decrease in her favourability ratings over the last few months was mostly on account of the constant negative coverage associated with the email scandal which in turn led to drop in her poll numbers and thus created a cycle of negative headlines for Clinton. Clinton needed a strong moment to get out of this loop and she was able to do this with the favourable coverage of the events of the last week, which in turn led to improvement in her favourability numbers. However, no one knows how the next news cycle is going to treat her candidacy. Remember that we have not seen the last of Benghazi, email scandal or the Clinton for cash scandal.
Halperin’s next point is that Biden’s withdrawal is going to give her further edge in the Democratic establishment and give her even more number of super-delegates. Now let us not get confused between the cause and the effect. Biden’s decision not to run was because Clinton has been able to lock up almost the entire establishment support and not the other way round. It has been well documented how Clinton has been one of the strongest candidates in modern presidential campaign history, in terms of endorsements from party insiders. Biden, on the other hand, had only endorsements from legislators of Delaware, his home state and not a very large one either. Thus while Biden would have definitely managed to win some endorsement from the Democratic Party caucus, it is unlikely that his decision to run would make a very substantial difference to Clinton’s support within the party establishment.
Halperin also argues that Clinton has massive support from labour unions. Again, this is something well known and well documented and has long been one of the strengths of her candidacy this time around.
Halperin next argues that Clinton can become the de facto nominee by February 8th, 2015. Again, this is true but does not signify much. If Clinton wins both Iowa and New Hampshire, two of the states most favourable to Sanders in terms of demographics, it is very difficult to conceive a realistic scenario where Clinton loses the nomination. However, even if Clinton is able to put away the nomination in early 2015, it is not expected to materially affect her prospects in the general election. For reference, consider the election of 2008, when McCain had a relatively easy path to nomination whereas Clinton and Obama were engaged in a bloody contest that almost stretched all the way to the party convention. McCain lost badly in the general election.
Halperin repeats this same point twice again at the end of the article stating that the Republican nominee is likely to emerge bloodied, broke and behind whereas Clinton will be able to post a unified front in a tightly scripted convention with the entire Democratic National Committee falling behind her. This is only partly true and partly pure conjecture. While most people are expecting a bitter, raucous fight among the Republican contenders, it is not necessary that the party will not be able to unify behind a single candidate, especially in case he is someone like Marco Rubio who has broad appeal to different sections of the party. Primary fights have been bitter in a number of instances in the modern primary campaign, but only in a handful of instances have the fights spilled over to the party conventions (the 1984 Democratic convention was probably the last party convention where all delegates were not formally unified behind a single leader). In the same vein, one can also reasonably argue that Bernie Sanders has already appealed to a large portion of young, white, progressives, a significant chunk of the Democratic Party base and Hillary will have to co-opt them in order to present a more unified party at the convention. But, the bigger point is that there is no evidence that links the competitiveness of primaries to the electability of the candidate and as a result, none of these shall probably eventually matter.
Most of the other points that Halperin makes are related to the strength of Hillary’s campaign and the way they are already targeting general election audience. Coming from a political journalist, this statement has to be taken with a lot of salt. Campaigns typically appear tight run and well knit when the candidate is doing well in polls. But when the candidate starts faltering, you will find a number of reports on how dysfunctional the whole campaign apparatus is, with most of the quotes coming from anonymous sources. I remember, for example, reading a piece which came a few weeks back in ‘Politico’, on how bureaucratic the whole Clinton campaign had become and how they were struggling to deal with the barrage of negative media onslaught related to the email controversy. Similarly, when the campaigns of Scott Walker and Rand Paul began to struggle, reports quickly emerged on how ineffective their campaigns were.
It may be noted that it was more or less a given that Clinton’s campaign team would be a formidable one. After all, there is no other strong, established Democratic front runner and as a result, almost the entire Democratic campaign stuff is working with Clinton. The more pertinent question is whether the Clinton campaign, known for its internal politics and well-documented layers of internal bureaucracy would be able to able to efficiently accommodate the flood of stuff, especially when some of them had worked for the rival Obama campaign in 2008. From the description offered in the Politico article, it did not appear the Clinton campaign has fully addressed the question.
The last points that Halperin makes is related to the structural advantage that he suggests any generic Democratic candidate has against a generic Republican candidate in the November. However, here also, his claims are suspect. For example, he states that Obama’s approval rating in the high 40s will not appear as a drag on Clinton’s candidacy. However, most experts agree that the current approval rating of Obama treads dangerously around the level where it shall become a negative on the campaign of the Democratic contender. Further, although Obama’s rating has hold mostly steady in the second term, a lot will depend on how the economy fares in the months leading up to the election, the scenario in Middle East, negotiations over raising of debt ceiling and a number of other unforeseeable event. If the approval of Obama falls to the region of around 40% (not entirely unexpected given the movement in his rating in the past), Clinton will have to take pains to dissociate himself from the President with whom she has served for four years.
Halperin also talks about the blue wall and demographic advantage that the Democrats have in the general election. This is mostly a myth. First of all, the Democratic Party did have an advantage among the various demographics that turned out in the last two generation elections, but did not do so in the mid term elections, like the young, the minorities, the more educated, etc. However, it is not yet known if Clinton will be able to carry over the demographic gains made during the Obama years. Will first or second time African American or young voters come out in droves to support Clinton like they did to Obama? After all, she is neither a racial minority nor a young candidate with a message of generational change. (She does, however, have the advantage of making history as the first woman president.) Further, what happens if the Republican Party nominates a ticket that includes someone like Marco Rubio or Susana Martinez. Will the Democratic Party still be in a position to gather overwhelming majority of the Hispanic vote like it did in 2012? These are questions that have still not yet been answered.
Secondly, the Democratic Party does not have an impregnable blue wall. It is true that the Democratic Party has won at least 18 states and District of Columbia, amounting to 242 electroral votes, in every election since 1992. But that is mainly because the Democratic Party has won the popular vote in five of the last six elections and lost the other one narrowly. However, if they lose the popular vote, they would not have any structural advantage that would enable it to retain the electroral college. For example, in 2000, Democrats won the popular vote narrowly but still managed to lose the electroral college.
While we can always argue on these finer points, the main problem with Halperin’s piece is that it is emblematic of the way the mainstream media has treated the candidacy of Hillary Clinton. For months and months, the standard narrative was that Hillary was gradually losing the Democratic nomination and Barnie Sanders was on the ascendancy. This is in spite of the fact that polls after polls showed Hillary leading the national vote and all votes outside Iowa and New Hampshire. Sanders’s poor level of support among groups other than white progressives makes it almost impossible for him to win any state outside the overwhelmingly white states of Mid West and North East, a fact thoroughly discounted by the media. However, now that Hillary has had a good last ten days, the media is overcompensating, framing a narrative of how Hillary has turned the election on its head, even though she was and she continues to be the foreboding front runner in the fight of Democratic Party nomination. I am no expert, but I would say the events of last week have led to an increase in the odds of Clinton by at best a margin of 5%-10% and not more than that.
The main risks to the Clinton candidacy were getting caught up in a negative loop of news coverage (something that has significantly dimmed the prospects of Jeb Bush) and unforeseeable force-majeure events. Clinton has managed to come out of the negative news cycle, but the risks of fallout from a major revelation in the email controversy or cash for Clinton scandal still remain. And given the continuing investigations and Republican interests on both these issues, the risks shall remain till the November elections.
Further, no matter what Halperin says, Clinton is not, at least as of today, a strong favourite against the Republican nominee, assuming that the Republican nominee shall not be someone extreme like Carson or Trump. Fundamentals like the state of the economy, flare-ups in the Middle East, the president’s approval ratings as well as investments by the candidates in the respective turn out operations shall ultimately decide who wins the White House.